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Should the US designate an official language?

March 26, 2019


The United States is one of a few nations in the world to have no official language designated. While the Constitution gives no reasoning for this, many reasons have been suggested by experts. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to designate English as the national language, but none have ever been successfully passed into law. This debate is open again because a new bill has been introduced in Congress. On February 6, 2019, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who was stripped of his committee assignments after making comments supporting white supremacy and white nationalism1, introduced HR997 English Language Unity Act of 2019. If enacted, this bill would designate English as the official language of the United States of America. As of this writing, the number of co-sponsors is at 11 and all are from the Republican party.2 The bill was referred to the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on the Judiciary.

 

A Brief Overview of Language in the United States

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the most widely spoken language in the United States is English (and that is the language used for most governmental functions), over 350 different languages are spoken in homes across the nation.This number has not changed significantly since the founding of the country, when almost 300 indigenous languages were spoken in North America4, but the composition of the languages has changed. Data from the American Community Survey shows that the types of languages spoken by residents vary by region and that there is the most diversity in metropolitan cities. In fact, over 91% of the population of non-metropolitan areas in the U.S. speaks English only.5For example, in the Washington DC metro area there are at least 168 spoken languages and 26% of the metro area population speaks a language other than English at home.2One of the smaller language groups found there is the collection of Amharic language speakers (the estimate is 43,125 residents).

 

A Brief Background of Related Legislation

The United States has never been a one language nation, but a debate has existed since our founding about whether we should be. For example, in 1755 (prior to the American Revolution), Benjamin Franklin wrote about his growing concern that German immigrants to Pennsylvania would eventually dominate the English with their customs and language.Later, in 1780, John Adams—who had written extensively on his belief that our new nation needed a common language— wrote to Congress to request the creation of “The American Academy, for refining, improving and ascertaining the English Language8.” Throughout the late 19thand 20thcenturies, the federal government operated boarding schools in which American Indian students were punished harshly for speaking or writing in their tribe’s language.9

In 1981, Senator Samuel Hayakawa (R-CA) introduced an amendment to the constitution entitled, the English Language Amendment (ELA). This amendment would have designated English the nation’s official language. Though it did not pass, Senator Hayakawa helped found an organization to keep the movement for English as the nation’s official language alive: US English, INC., which describes itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest non-partisan citizens’ action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.10” Several of bills have been introduced since the ELA. While a few have been able to gain approval in either the House or the Senate, none have ever passed through both chambers of Congress and, as such, have died before passing into law.

Despite the introduction of many bills, Congress has never agreed to designate an official national language, so what is the debate over? What do supporters and opponents of this initiative have to say?

 

Some arguments made by supporters of designating English as the U.S.’s official language:

  • It promotes unity: Making the official language English “promotes unity and empowers immigrants by encouraging them to learn English, the language of opportunity in this country.”11
  • It protects English as the majority language: “English needs constitutional protection at this late date in our nation’s history because of the unique threat posed by the growing Spanish-speaking population of the United States.”12
  • It urges immigrants to assimilate more quickly to American life: “Bilingual education and multilingual [voting] ballots discourage rather than encourage assimilation, send mixed signals about what is important in American life, encourage separatism and hostility toward American ideals…”13
  • It does not violate freedom of speech because it is not required: “Because Official English legislation is a limitation on government, not private individuals, it does not violate the principle of freedom of speech.”14
  • There are too many languages to accommodate them all:There are over 350 languages spoken in the United States and we cannot create government materials for all of them.15

 

Some arguments made by opponents of designating English as the U.S.’s official language:

  • This legislation is not needed because English as the majority language is not under threat: While there may be a large number of people who speak languages other than English in the United States, the rate of English proficiency among foreign-born citizens is actually on the rise. The census data shows that “of those who spoke a language other than English at home, 59.7 percent also spoke English “very well.” This is a 2.6% increase from the 2007-2011 data.16
  • It is at odds with our ideals: It is a denial of the “essential ideals of tolerance and respect for diversity that underlie American democracy…and a return to racial and ethnic discrimination and the xenophobia that marked much of American history.”17
  • It is discriminatory: “H.R. 997 simply discriminates against those who have not yet learned English or those perceived not to be proficient in English, with damaging consequences for society as a whole.”18
  • It should be left up to the states: The States should have the right to choose (or not choose) an official language for themselves.
  • It is typically the home language that is lost through immigration: It is not English that is likely to die out, but the native language of immigrants as they attempt to assimilate. A pattern has been found that seems to repeat itself: the third-generation (the grandchildren of immigrants) will likely speak only English.  Their grandparents will attempt to learn English when they immigrate, their parents will be bilingual (English plus the home language), and by the third-generation the only language known is English.19
  • We should be taking an English Plus, not English Only approach:In an ever-increasing global community more language acquisition, not less, should be encouraged for U.S. residents.20

 

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think that the United States should designate an official national language? Why or why not? Shoud the U.S. designate multiple official languages?
  • Moving into the future, what specific impact (if any) would the designation of a national language have on the lives of everyday people? On the workings of the government? On some other area of U.S. life?
  • Do you believe that “all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution”?

 

Sources
Featured Image: William Thomas Cain, Getty Images (https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Famously-divisive-speak-English-sign-pulled-9976088.php#photo-9447584)
[1] Opsahl, Robin. “Everything That’s Happened with Rep. Steve King since His New York Times Comments.” DesMoinesRegister.com, Des Moines Register, 23 Jan. 2019, www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2019/01/16/iowa-4th-district-rep-steve-king-white-supremacy-nationalism-new-york-times-racism-timeline-explain/2592434002/
[2] Text – H.R.997 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): English Language Unity Act of 2019. (2019, February 06). Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/997/text.
[3] US Census Bureau. (2015, November 03). Census Bureau Reports at Least 350 Languages Spoken in U.S. Homes. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-185.html.
[4] Braun, David Max. “Preserving Native America’s Vanishing Languages.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 14 Dec. 2017, blog.nationalgeographic.org/2009/11/15/preserving-native-americas-vanishing-languages/
[5] Rumbaut & Massey (2013). Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States. Daedalus, 142(3). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4092008/#.
[6] Wagner, S. T. (1981). America’s Non-English Heritage. Society,19(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02694611.
[7] Do you speak American? (2005). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from https://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/johnadams/.
[8] National Archives. (2019, January 18). Founders Online: From John Adams to the President of Congress, No. 6, 5 September 1780. Retrieved March 22, 2019, from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-10-02-0067.
[9] Bear, Charla. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.” NPR, NPR, 12 May 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865.
[10] Our History. (2017, December 05). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from https://www.usenglish.org/history.
[11] Questions and Answers about Official English. (2017, December 05). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from https://www.usenglish.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/QandAaboutOE.pdf.
[12] Leibowicz, J. (1984). The Proposed English Language Amendment: Shield or Sword?Yale Law & Policy Review,3(2). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/ylpr/vol3/iss2/9.
[13] Leibowicz, “Shield or Sword”, 1984.
[14] Questions and Answers, www.usenglish.org, 2017.
[15] U.S. Census Bureau, “350 Languages”, 2015.
[16] U.S. Census Bureau, “350 Languages”, 2015.
[17] Leibowicz, “Shield or Sword”, 1984.
[18] ACLU Washington Legislative Office. (2012, August 2). ACLU Statement for hearing on HR 997, the English Language Unity Act of 2011. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/other/aclu-statement-hearing-hr-997-english-language-unity-act-2011.
[19] Do you speak American? (2005).
[20] Linguistic Society of America. (1 July 1987). Resolution: English Only.Retrieved from https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/resolution-english-only.

 

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